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Business Rx: How to stand out in a sea of stylists?

Special to Capital Business
Monday, July 19, 2010; 28

The entrepreneur Monica Barnett has always been into fashion, and she has a knack for understanding what clothing works -- and doesn't -- for different body shapes. For years she had been the go-to style consultant for friends, family and co-workers who needed help pulling outfits together. Barnett had been running an informal image consulting service on the side since 2003. Two years ago, she formalized Blueprint for Style, a Washington-based image consulting, personal styling and branding company, and began doing what she loves full time when she quit her health-care job in June 2009.

Her philosophy follows the wisdom of her high-school soccer coach, who used to make his players clean their cleats before every game with the reasoning that "if you look good, you feel good, and if you feel good, you play good." Barnett hopes the success of her business will allow her the flexibility to devote some of her time to working with young children to teach them about self-image.

The pitch

Barnett

"With a mission to refine and cultivate men, women and businesses, Blueprint for Style is about maintaining key relationships that harvest stylish and personalized solutions.

"Blueprint for Style services fall into four major areas: style consultations and wardrobe assessments; closet overhauls; personal brand development and outfit creation; and personal shopping and style management.

"My target market is men and women, ages 27-59, with a sense of personal style and appreciation for culture. I have clients across the country -- most are in Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, Miami and Washington, D.C."

The problem

Barnett

"In this economic environment, how can I create a value proposition to let people know that their image is what can give them the competitive advantage? My biggest challenge is to expand the network of the 'right' people that know about Blueprint for Style. And following that, how do I differentiate myself in that market? There's a sea of other D.C. stylists and image consultants who do this in their spare time or on the side."

The advice

Judy Frels, marketing faculty lecturer and executive director of marketing communications at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

"You have a pretty broad range of services that you're offering to a broad target market. To home in on a specific market, target a group of people that have the same problem so you become known as the expert in solving 'problem X.' You want that problem to be a real source of pain for your target so it's a problem that they feel passionate about solving. For example, maybe the target is women who are moving to the next level of their career in a male-dominated industry, such as the defense industry, who feel like they need to dress with power and authority but still be feminine. Within your current customer base, figure out the common themes among the image problems you were most successful at addressing.

"By going after networks of the same kinds of people who have similar problems to address and might talk to one another, you have the opportunity to start word-of-mouth marketing and that really will do more for your marketing than any amount of dollars you can spend."

Benjamin Hallen, assistant professor of management and organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and former entrepreneur

"It's great that you've had some success, and now you can capitalize on that and use it to grow your business. Most entrepreneurs think about their business model before they start up, but a lot of success comes from later evolving the business model as you learn from the market. You need to learn what is resonating with your current customers -- find out why they came to you and look for patterns of what works and what doesn't for acquiring new customers. Then complement this learning from your past experiences with small, purposeful 'experiments' in which you test new approaches before investing further time and money. Experiential and experimental learning often offer different insights, and their combination can be very powerful for refining a business model."

Entrepreneur's reaction

Barnett

"I do rely on word-of-mouth, and it certainly makes a lot of sense to ask people how they heard of my business. I love Judy's advice on thinking through the main problem I'm addressing for a key audience and really segmenting out the market.

"Looking at my current successes, have I spread myself thin in terms of offering services in other cities and the other work I'm doing? Currently, I'm trying to increase my visibility by getting my name/brand out there -- I write for Jet magazine three times a week, Lucky magazine's Alpha Shoppers blog, and I'm a style editor for a blog and a new magazine that is about to open a Washington branch."

Hallen

"The fact that you have customers in Miami, Atlanta and some of the cities that are frequently viewed as more fashionable cities, that sends a nice signal to prospective clients here in D.C."

Frels

"I wouldn't turn away business from other cities because you never know when you might hit a really fantastic set of opportunities, but I would focus your outreach efforts in a geographically constrained way to start with.

"As for your work with Jet magazine and the other outlets, gauge how those efforts are working by asking your potential clients how they heard of you. Ask for a direct link to your site from Jet magazine's Web site and the other places where you contribute and set up Google Analytics on your site to see how many hits to your site are coming for your efforts."

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